Sixth century


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5. Finally, although the old ideals of 



murūʾa with its twin virtues of cour-

age in war and hospitality in peace remained in force, there appeared a new set of 

Christian ideals such as chastity, with which the Arab pre-Islamic poet had not 

been familiar. The poet who gave this new Christian dimension its best expres-

sion was al-Nābigha, in his celebrated 

bāʾiyya, which ends with the following 

sextet of verses:

Theirs is a liberal nature that God gave

To no men else; their virtues never fail.

Their home the Holy Land: their faith upright:

They hope to prosper if good deeds avail.

Zoned in fair wise and delicately shod,

They keep the Feast of Palms, when maidens pale,

Whose scarlet silken robes on trestles hang,

Greet them with odorous boughs and bid them hail.

Long lapped in ease tho’ bred to war, their limbs

Green shouldered vestments, white-sleeved, richly veil.63

III. “Byzantium in Arabic Poetry”

Ever since Meleager of Gadara had left Tyre and settled on the island of Cos 

sometime in the first century b.c., the literary and cultural life of Oriens lacked 

high-quality secular poetry, though literary artists continued to compose toler-

able verse.64 The Ghassānids, whose court attracted Arabian poets, brought back 

poetry to Oriens, with the Provincia Arabia as its center. It was not a classical or 

an indigenous tradition revived, but an exotic flower transplanted from outside 

the limits of the 



imperium, from the world of Arabian paganism. At the same 

time, it underwent considerable transformation in Oriens; “Byzantium in Arabic 

poetry” would be a convenient rubric for some of the poetry composed for the 

Ghassānids. For this reason it is relevant to the cultural analyst of Oriens, who rec-

ognizes the important distinction between the Greek and Syriac elements in the 

ethnic and cultural constitution of the area and who thus conceives of the region 

 

62  See J. E. Bencheikh, “Khamriyya,” 



EI2, IV, 998–1009. 

 

63 Al-Nābigha, 



Dīwān, 46–48; trans. R. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (1907; reprint, 

London, 1969), 54. Though the version has some inaccuracies, it is adequate to illustrate Ghassānid 

Christianity.

 

64  For Meleager and Antipater, see Al. Cameron, 



Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 

1996), 952 and 111. For Philodemus, see P. Treves and D. Obbink, ibid., 1165–66. For specimens of 

these poets, see P. K. Hitti, 

History of Syria, Including Lebanon and Palestine (London, 1951), 259–61.


320

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

in bicultural terms.65 This biculturalism must now be reexamined as the role of 

the Ghassānids in Oriens is recognized. A new strand, Arabic poetry, enters into 

the texture of the cultural life of Oriens, both allied to Syriac in the wider Semitic 

context and distinct from it in various ways. In the enumeration of the cultural 

centers of Oriens, the historian gives prominence to Gaza in Palestine, Beirut in 

Phoenikê, Antioch in Syria Prima, and Edessa in Osroene. This map of the cul-

tural landscape in Oriens is necessarily modified when the Provincia Arabia and 

Palestina Secunda are recognized as cultural centers of Arabic poetry to be added 

to the four provinces of the diocese already listed.

 

Arabic poetry composed for the Ghassānids in the sixth century did not 



affect Byzantine literary art in Oriens or elsewhere, unlike that of the sister lan-

guage Syriac; for example, the Syriac metrical hymns of Ephrem influenced those 

of Romanus the Melode. So the two Semitic peoples, the Aramaeans and the Jews, 

represented by Ephrem and Romanus, contributed much to Byzantine cultural life 

directly through sacred song.66

 

Because no sacred poetry or hymns that may have been composed for the 



Ghassānids have survived, it is not possible to gauge how Syriac works may have 

affected this form of Arabic poetry. The detectable connections seem to be lim-

ited to the poetic lexicon, which has been noted in the case of al-Nābigha.67 More 

substantial lexical influence can be found in the 



dīwāns of two poets, Umayya ibn 

Abi al-Ṣalt and ʿAdī ibn Zayd, who flourished in Ṭāʾif in Arabia and in Ḥīra of the 

Lakhmids, respectively; Ṭāʾif, in western Arabia, was within the sphere of influ-

ence of the Ghassānids and their overlord, Byzantium.68

 

Although Arabic poetry did not affect literary art in pre-Islamic non-Arab 



Oriens, it did so in Umayyad times, which witnessed a flowering of Arabic poetry 

and song in Bilād al-Shām, exemplified by the relationship of the Umayyad court 

poet, the Christian al-Akhṭal, to al-Nābigha.69 It may even have influenced 

Byzantine verse through the Arab John of Damascus, the Church Father who was 

also a distinguished hymnographer and musician. Before he took the monastic 

garb at St. Sabas, he had been the boon companion of Yazīd, the Umayyad caliph 

who was also a poet.70 The extent to which John of Damascus was influenced by 

 

65  See F. Millar, 



The Roman Near East, 31 B.C. to a.d. 337 (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), reviewed by 

the present writer in 



Catholic Historical Review 81 (1995), 251–52.

 

66  For B. Baldwin the Jewish background of Romanus is not certain; see his “Romanos, the Melode” 



in 

ODB, III, 1807.

 

67  See F. A. Bustāni, 



al-Nābigha al-Dhubyāni, al-Rawāʾiʿ 30 (Beirut, 1931), p. KB note 2. Not all the 

words cited there are loans from Syriac. 

 

68  See F. Gabrieli, “ʿAdī B. Zayd,” 



EI2, I, 196; J. E. Montgomery, “Umayya B. Abī l-Ṣalt,” EI2, X, 839. 

 

69  On Akhṭal, see S. Ghāzi, 



al-Akhṭal (Cairo, 1979), 217–21.

 

70  See J. Naṣrallah, 



Saint Jean de Damas: Son époque, sa vie, son oeuvre (Harissa, Lebanon, 1950), 

66–69, 150–51.



321

Poetry


the explosion of Arabic Umayyad poetry and song around him is not clear, but that 

it had some impact seems plausible.

 

In considering the contribution of the Semitic peoples of Oriens to its cul-



tural life, a return to Romanus is appropriate. Although he became a Christian 

saint and spent his years as hymnographer in Constantinople, whither he went 

during the reign of the emperor Anastasius (491–518), he was born in Emesa 

(Ḥims), a city whose strong Arab character must still have been present in the sixth 

century, as the visit of the poet Imruʾ al-Qays to it around 540 suggests. The two 

sister Semitic peoples of Oriens have thus contributed two major metrical forms 

to world literature. Romanus perfected the 

kontakion, while Imruʾ al-Qays and 

after him al-Nābigha perfected the 



qasīda, both forms that have enjoyed remark-

able longevity in the annals of Byzantine and Arabic literature respectively. The 

Nativity 

kontakion of Romanus, which begins ‘Η παρθένος σήμερον τὸν ὑπερούσιον 

τίκτει (“Today the Virgin brings into the world the one Transcendent, beyond all 

being”), is still sung annually every Christmas in the churches of the Orthodox; 

the Suspended Ode of Imruʾ al-Qays, a 



qasīda with the splendid opening verse 

“Halt! Let us shed tears in memory of a departed love and her abode,” is still in the 

front rank of Arabic poetry. And no less enduring is the 

anastasis hymn of John of 

Damascus, which resonates in Orthodox Churches on every Easter Day: Χριστὸς 

ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν . . . (“Christ has risen from the dead . . .”).

IV. Poetry at the Byzantine Court

The Ghassānids were not the only 

foederati of Byzantium at whose court poetry 

flourished. That art was well known and welcomed at the courts of other “bar-

barian” groups and 

foederati in the Roman Occident, such as the Franks and the 

Vandals. The rulers and kings of these other groups received panegryrics from 

poets, as the Ghassānids did, and so did the 

basileus in Constantinople.71

Arabic Poetry in Byzantium in Late Antiquity

While the poetry composed for the other 

foederati of the Occident is well known 

to Byzantinists and has often been regarded as part of Byzantine literature in late 

antiquity, that composed for the Ghassānids is virtually unknown. It has never 

appeared in a history of Byzantine literature, for very good reasons. In this world 

of late antiquity, which privileged Greek and Latin, a language such as Arabic 

must have been viewed as an alien tongue of a “barbarian” group whose image 

 

71  Scholars believe that poetry became established at the imperial court during the reign of 



Theodosius II; on poets of the fifth century during his reign and that of Zeno and of Anastasius, see 

Al. Cameron, “The Empress and the Poet: Paganism and Politics at the Court of Theodosius II,” in 



Literature and Society in the Early Byzantine World, article III, 270, 281–82. 

322

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

in Byzantine historiography was somewhat tarnished. Furthermore, Arabic had 

no relation to any of the three constituent elements of Byzantinism; in contrast, 

its sister cognate Semitic language Syriac/Aramaic was the language of Christ 

himself, and was thus esteemed within the Bible-centered empire of Byzantium. 

Indeed, Syriac became within that Christian empire the lingua franca of 

Oriens 

Christianus; through figures such as St. Ephrem, it even influenced Byzantine 

hymnography.

 

Viewing Arabic from a biblical perspective, the Byzantines saw it as the lan-



guage of the Hagarenoi and the Ishmaelites, both pejorative labels related respec-

tively to Hagar, the maid of Sarah, and to Ishmael, the son of Hagar and Abraham, 

whose descendants, the Arabs, were outside God’s promise and covenant. Even in a 

secular context, Strabo had criticized Arabic as a language difficult to pronounce.72 

It was, therefore, natural that the Byzantines of late antiquity, particularly in the 

sixth century, should have failed to associate poetry with the Arabs. The people 

were known to them as 

Sarakenoi, a term that, through Ammianus and others, 

allied them to the hostile pastoralists, and often identified them with a people 

whom Procopius and his school accused of treachery to the Roman cause.73

Arabic Poetry in Byzantium after Yarmūk (636)

The very same battle, Yarmūk, that caused the downfall of both Byzantium and the 

Ghassānids in Oriens also brought about a revolution in the fortunes and status of 

Arabic and its speakers—not the Christian Ghassānids but the Muslim Arabs of 

the Peninsula. From this time onward, Arabic poetry has close connections with 

Byzantium; it is no longer peripheral as it had been in a distant province of the 

empire, namely, Arabia in Oriens. Arabic becomes the language of the Islamic 

caliphate, which superseded Sasanid Iran as Byzantium’s enemy. Previously, it had 

been the limited concern of the empire’s Office of the Barbarians, which dealt with 



foederati and with the Arabian Peninsula. Now, it is the official language of a vast 

empire, and Constantinople takes it seriously.

 

Arabic became the linguistic medium of all the poetry that was composed 



by Muslims on the Arab-Byzantine conflict in Umayyad and Abbasid times, and 

imperial Byzantium became aware of it. The emperor Nicephorus I (802–811), 

himself of Arab origin, expressed interest in the poetry of Abū al-ʿAtāhiya, the poet 

 

72 Strabo, 



Geography, XVI.iv.18. The Arabs countered by calling non-Arabs ʿAjam, “dumb,” because 

they were unable to pronounce Arabic correctly. The term already appears in the poetry of al-Nābigha; 

see 

Dīwān, 122, verse 30. For ʿAjam, whose way of speaking was “incomprehensible and obscure,” see  

F. Gabrieli, “Adjam,” 



EI2, I, 205. 

 

73 See 



BALA II, 9–65. For Procopius and his school, represented by Agathias, Menander, Evagrius, 

and Theophylact, see 



BASIC II.1, 5. 

323

Poetry


of asceticism, 

zuhd, in Baghdad.74 Even more important was what happened in the 

tenth century during the Byzantine 



reconquista. This was the period of the epic 

Arab-Byzantine conflict, which featured Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces 

on the Byzantine side, and the Ḥamdānid Sayf al-Dawla and his chivalrous brother, 

Abū Firās, knight and poet, on the Arab. The period witnessed also the 



floruit of 

the foremost Arab poet of medieval Islam, al-Mutanabbi, the poet of Islamic 



jihād 

against the Byzantines. Consequently, the Ḥamdānids of Aleppo and their poet 

laureate, al-Mutanabbi, figure prominently in the Arab-Byzantine relationship.

 

1. Nicephorus Phocas expressed a negative response to a verse composed by 



al-Mutanabbi.75 He sent a long comminatory poem to al-Muṭīʿ, the Abbasid caliph 

in Baghdad. It elicited a reply composed in the same meter and rhyme.76 It was a 

remarkable demonstration of a 

munāfara, a strife poem, a form that (as noted ear-

lier in this chapter) was common among the Arabs.

 

2. The brother of Sayf al-Dawla, the poet Abū Firās, was taken prisoner, and 



he languished for some years in Constantinople (962–966); during that period he 

composed his 



Rūmiyyāt.77

 

All this is related to the poetry composed for the Ghassānids before the fall of 



the dynasty. The stay of Abū Firās in Constantinople, though as a prisoner, evokes the 

visit of Imruʾ al-Qays to Justinian, around a.d. 540, an incident that the Ḥamdānid 

poet no doubt recalled.78 More important and relevant here was the association 

of another poet of the Ghassānids, al-Nābigha, with the events of this late period. 

During a campaign against the Byzantines, and accompanied by al-Mutanabbi, Sayf 

 

74  See N. M. El-Cheikh, 



Byzantium Viewed by the Arabs (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), 95. El-Cheikh 

doubts the Arab origin of Nicephorus, but there is good evidence for it, and Bury and Vasiliev accepted 

it, following the Oriental sources. See J. B. Bury, 

Eastern Roman Empire (London, 1912), 8, and A. A. 

Vasiliev, 



History of the Byzantine Empire (Madison, Wis., 1952), 271. 

 

75  Ferreted out and discussed by G. J. van Gelder, “Camels on Eyelids and the Bafflement of an 



Emperor: A Line of al-Mutanabbi ‘Translated’ into Greek,” in 

Proceedings of the XIIth Congress of the 

International Comparative Literature Association, München 1988, III, Space and Boundaries in Literature 

(Continuation), ed. R. Bauer and D. Fokkema (Munich, 1990), 446–51. In this article, the Arabic source 

cited in reference to Nicephorus and Mutanabbi’s verse is the eleventh-century man of letters Ibn Sinān 

al-Khafāji; see his 

Sirr al-Faṣāḥa (Cairo, 1952), 48–49. More recently, Marc Lauxtermann came to the 

rescue of Mutanabbi and explained away the negative response of Nicephorus in his 



Byzantine Poetry 

from Pisides to Geometres, 19–20. 

 

76  The poem was no doubt composed for Nicephorus by someone in the Arabic-speaking commu-



nity in Constantinople, clear evidence that Arabic was established as an important foreign language in 

Constantinople and that Arabic verse had its practitioners in the capital. For the two poems, see G. E. 

von Grünebaum, “Eine poetische Polemik zwischen Byzanz und Baghdad im X. Jahrhundert,” in 

Studia 

Arabica, Analecta Orientalia 14 (Rome, 1937), 43–64. In fact, not one but two (or perhaps even more) 

replies were composed to Nicephorus’ poem, in an exchange I shall discuss in a future publication. 

 

77  On Abū Firās, see H. A. R. Gibb, “Abū-Firās,” 



EI2, I, 119–20.

 

78  On this visit, see the present writer in “The Last Days of Imruʾ al-Qays: Anatolia,” in 



Tradition 

and Modernity in Arabic Literature, ed. I. J. Boullata and T. DeYoung (Fayetteville, Ark., 1997), 207–18.

324

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

al-Dawla sent one of his divisions on a raiding expedition that was carried out suc-

cessfully. When he rejoined the division, one of its warriors unsheathed and dis-

played his sword, bloodied and blunted from the encounter. Sayf al-Dawla admired 

it and recited a well-known couplet from the celebrated epinician ode of al-Nābigha 

on the Ghassānids: “One fault they have: their swords are blunt of edge/Through 

constant beating on their foemen’s mail.” Al-Mutanabbi watched him recite the cou-

plet, then he extemporized a quatrain in which he expressed his admiration for the 

couplet of the pre-Islamic Ghassānid poet, lauded the Ḥamdānid prince, said that 

he understood the place of the poet in the estimation of Sayf al-Dawla, and consid-

ered al-Nābigha a happy man for having been remembered by Sayf al-Dawla (a con-

noisseur of Arabic poetry) on such an occasion so long after his death.79

 

That the Ḥamdānid prince chose a couplet from al-Nābigha’s famous ode 



on the Ghassānids in celebrating his victory makes plain that poetry in praise of 

the Ghassānids was very much alive in the consciousness of later Arab dynasties—

especially those who ruled in the same region—even three centuries after the 

demise of the Ghassānids. It was ironic that a couplet in an epinician ode com-

posed for a Christian Ghassānid king fighting 

for Byzantium was now used by a 

Muslim prince fighting 



against Byzantium; the odes of al-Nābigha were clearly still 

alive in the tenth century.

 

This long chapter on poetry at the Ghassānid court has targeted a gap in the 



cultural history of Oriens in the proto-Byzantine period. In addition to filling 

that gap, the chapter is a prolegomenon for a better understanding of the fortunes 

of Arabic poetry in the new context of the Arab-Byzantine literary relationship 

in Islamic times, during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods. The involvement of 

Nicephorus Phocas of the tenth century in Arabic poetry appears no longer as an 

isolated aberration but as a link in a long chain of Arabic poetry written in the 

course of these centuries, some of which was composed in Constantinople. The 

tracing of the strands of continuity has extended them retrospectively back three 

centuries before the rise of Islam through a federate Arab literary tradition, the 

culmination of which was the poetry on the Ghassānids in sixth-century Oriens.

 

79 See 


Dīwān al-Mutanabbi, ed. ʿA. al-Barqūqī (Cairo, 1930), II, 286 note 8. The English version of 

al-Nābigha’s verse on the Ghassānids is that of Sir Charles Lyall, quoted by Nicholson, 



Literary History 

of the Arabs, 54.

Appendix


Poetry at the Court of the Occidental 

Foederati:

The Vandals

Poetry composed for a group of 

foederati in a language such as Arabic naturally 

remained unknown to members of the Byzantine literary world, outside a narrow 



325

Poetry


circle in Ghassānland and possibly a few in Petra and Palmyra. By contrast, the 

poetry composed for the other “barbarian” groups of Byzantium in the Roman 

Occident was well known.

 

The Vandals provide a useful comparison in this context because of their 



involvement with the Arabs.1 The Arab 

foederati of Byzantium in the fifth century, 

the Salīḥids, were enlisted by Emperor Leo I (457–474) for his Vandal War.2 It was 

in its aftermath that the Vandals were recognized as 

foederati in Africa in 474. 

 

1. Like the Arabs, the Vandals are technically 



foederati,3 although some 

important differences obtained between the two peoples in this regard. 

 

2. As Arians and Monophysites, respectively, the Vandals and Arabs both 



were heretics or at least non-orthodox from the point of view of Chalcedonian 

Byzantium.

 

3. Both Vandals and Arabs became patrons of poets who eulogized them. Of 



these Vandal poets, Florentinus may be singled out; he eulogized Tharasamund 

(497–523), a descendant of the founder of the dynasty, Gaiseric.4

 

Unlike the Ghassānids, the Vandals did not have a tradition of poetry in a 



native language through which praise could be expressed.5 Hence it was in Latin, 

the language of the Roman Empire, that poetry was composed for the Vandals; in 

contrast, Arabic, the language of Ghassānid poetry, was understood and appreci-

ated only by the Arabs of federate and Rhomaic Oriens.

 

1  On the Vandals and poetry, see J. W. George, “Vandal Poets in Their Context,” in 



Vandals, 

Romans, and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique Africa, ed. A. H. Merrills (Aldershot, Eng., 

2004), 133–43. See also Y. Hen, 



Roman Barbarians: The Royal Court and Culture in the Early Medieval 

West (Basingstoke, England and New York, 2007).

 

2 See 



BAFIC, 91–96.

 

3  The Ghassānids, like the other Arab allies in the preceding two centuries, are called tech-



nically ὑπόσπονδοι in Greek and 

foederati in Latin. For the Latin term, see Novella XXIV in the 

Codex Theodosianus for the fifth-century Arab 



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